Tibetan, Indian, and backpacker culture in Dharamshala

Before I begin my narrative for the month, I will give a brief update on my project. I know that my professional life in India should have a central role in this blog forum. However, I am at a critical point in defining and learning about agricultural problems related to the environment and livelihood in the working area of my host NGO, Jagori Grameen. Linsdey is visiting from the Rishi Valley Clinic in southern Andhra Pradesh, where she is focusing on public health problems related to pesticide exposure. We are comparing notes on raising issues with small farmers, the economic situation of households, and the challenges of breaking the cycle of environmental and health problems related to over dependence on synthetic inputs, while also strengthening farmers livelihoods. In a few days we will board the overnight bus to Dehra Dun, to spend time on Dr. Vandana Shiva’s famous Navdanya farm and seed saving center. Next month, I will put together all of my observations on what I think is to be done regarding agriculture in India generally and in this unique part of the western Himalayas.

This month, I want to talk about another aspect of life here near Dharamshala at the lower hills of the western Himalayas—the relationships among local people, Tibetan refugee settlers, and the foreign tourist industry. By bus, the land here rises up suddenly from the fertile plains of Punjab, India’s “breadbasket” state and center of the Green Revolution in agriculture. As the bus struggles in low gears to climb hills, passing market towns and small villages, the weather at this time of year becomes blessedly cooler. This is also famously the home of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile, along with perhaps a majority of the 250,000 Tibetan refugees living in India. As I tried to articulate in my post last month, the culture here is distinct, yet undoubtedly Indian. But alongside rather typical scenes of the dhaba serving Punjabi fast food, people harvesting wheat with a sickle, and shopkeepers weighing produce on hand scales, there is a strange mix of cultures that is not so common in rural India.

Groups of Tibetan Buddhist nuns and monks in crimson robes and shaved heads stroll through otherwise typical Indian village scenes. An exaggerated number of Indian taxi drivers stand outside the Karmapala (the Dalai Lama’s #2 man)’s temple and the Norbulinka Institute for the preservation of Tibetan culture, hoping to make about US$5-6 or more than a day’s wage in hard labor, for one or two rides. Young Tibetan men who make good money as artisans or in the Mcleod Ganj tourist markets check email on their iphones and climb onto new motorcycles. Phone companies advertise special international rates to Tibet/China. A restaurant where I am eating in Mcleod Ganj shuts suddenly because the owners do not want to appear greedy or apathetic for not participating in an anti-China political rally.

The Tibetan community appears highly cohesive, as a small community with a common experience of persecution in China and the dangerous choice to cross the Chinese border into India and Nepal over snow covered Himalayan passes patrolled by Chinese guards. The social services of the Tibetan Government in Exile, community support, and the economic input of foreign (mostly wealthy, Western) sympathizers has made the Tibetans relatively affluent in comparison to some of the poorest villagers in the surrounding area.

Then cultures meet. Young Tibetan girls in school uniform sweaters and skirts ask which bus is going to Mcleod Ganj in such strongly accented Hindi that I can’t help but smile. I’m not the only one trying to learn. White Westerner converts to the Tibetan Buddhist lifestyle live for years in the area without gaining a grasp of Himachali culture or any basic Hindi. A young, inebriated Tibetan man, takes great offense at a sleight by young Indian men and tries to regain his dignity. I try to break up the fight, leaving a restaurant in Mcleod Ganj at about 11 pm. When I see that I can’t do anything else, I leave, hoping for the best. Several minutes later the young man passes me, badly beaten by the four whom he had initially confronted. Sometimes Tibetan and Indian children play together near my house. Indian shopkeepers learn a few phrases in Tibetan. Everyone eats chow mien and momos (Tibetan dumplings) as snacks. Foreign tourists in puffy Ali Baba-style pants, blonde dreadlocks, beards for men, and pirate-style shirts smoke hashish in rooftop cafes and discuss the process of finding themselves on the tourist trail in India. They compare yoga ashrams and discuss their experiences on Indian trains. Local Indian people complain that Tibetans are rude to them, but kind to foreigners. These groups often coexist without mixing in any way, creating a strange set of parallel worlds where completely different cultures do not influence each other at all.

How do I feel about all of this as part of my life? I believe that it’s reinforced my belief that accepting the official story from the news or from governments is never enough to do justice to the complexity of a situation. Westerners fret over the political situation in Tibet and come to volunteer with Tibetan refugees. Yet at the same time refugees from Burma live in obscurity and without rights in India. Persecuted groups such as China’s Uighur population fail to gain the same place in the rich world’s imagination. In another layer of it all, Tibetans have earned good livings in India and the United States from the favorable media coverage and sympathy, while Indian people in the area where I live wonder why foreigners are so fascinated with them and struggle with the harsh realities of their own lives. The relative safety and freedom of India comes as a great relief to refugees, but can turn to a life of post-traumatic stress, grief, alienation, and substance abuse. Many Westerners despise China, yet (particularly in the case of Americans, I believe), see their states as gentler despite two World Wars, colonialism and imperialism, and the current illegal military operations. A sense of inherent moral superiority in the West and its close allies does not translate to the sentiments of most of the world’s people, making this approach counterproductive.

However, the real point is above all of this. The actions of states in international relations are perhaps the least relevant to people’s lives. Most people would really prefer to have better lives in terms of civil liberties, opportunities, and material conditions, regardless of where the means to do so come from. If the foreign media or governments are willing to provide a means to realize this, then people will take the opportunity. Although a spiritual leader rather than a democratically elected one, the Dalai Lama has made great accomplishments at securing a decent life for the people that he represents. The fact that he has accomplished this in India, where economic growth and foreign capital has mainly affected the lives of people in major cities, shows that democracy has a long path to tread in India in order to solve the distributional problems that polities face.

I do not relate to the experiences of foreign tourists, and I work exclusively with local Indian people. Tibetan people are my neighbors (I live less than 200 meters from a major nunnery), rather than some abstraction of persecution or spiritual enlightenment. I read of stories of uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, spontaneous celebrations at the extrajudicial killing of Osama bin Laden, and continuing struggles of workers and oppressed people in the West. I am sure that in fewer than two months when I am in the process of leaving this year that has immersed me in the issues of environmental and rural issues in India, I will see these political and social realities as an important part of how this time has influenced me.

From May Blog Post

A statue at the nunnery near my house. Sometimes the nuns do a traditional practice in dialectics and argument, which involves shouting traditional theological arguments, then finishing with a clap and stamp in theatrical fashion. This pavilion hosts many of these traditional scenes.

From May Blog Post

Workshop with traditional Tibetan instruments for temple bands or (apparently) foreign connoisseurs of Tibetan music.

From May Blog Post

A trilingual English-Tibetan-Hindi sign, not an uncommon sight in many areas around Dharamshala.

From May Blog Post

Unrelated: A family planning poster. The grave looks and unibrows make this comical to me.

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